A Colored Past (4): Seriousness, Simplicity, Sophistication

One of the earliest shades seen in prehistoric art, black remains today a color of purging, concentration and elegance.
Throughout history, black pigments were overwhelmingly produced by incineration. From Neolithic charcoals and Roman burnt grapevines to the condensed smoke of Renaissance oil lamps and charred ivory and animal bones, producing black has long been a sooty endeavor, with each source material offering a different tone of the color.
Black was known early on through inks, first developed in China as far back as 2300 BCE. From this origin, this color defined manuscripts and court writings as well as the early printing press, lending black a scholarly tone and associations with learnedness and sober intellectualism.
However, this intensity did not initially translate well to textiles. Like with pigments, different combinations of plant materials were used to produce different black tones in dye, but the resulting fabrics were closer to grays and browns. This drab palette was the garment color for renunciate monks and manual laborers up through the Middle Ages.
The status of black began to change in the 14th century when the more common early root dyes were superseded by the discovery of precious alternatives that yielded more brilliant and saturated tones. One such popular dye was made from the gall nut, an aberration on oak trees caused by the larva of certain wasps. With a tiny width of only a few centimeters each, a large quantity of gall nuts were required to produce even a small amount of the high-quality dye.
At this same time, wealthy emergent bourgeois bankers and merchants of the 14th century were looking for a way to demonstrate their class in a sartorial world dominated by sumptuary laws that reserved most vivid hues for the nobility. And so, new and expensive rich blacks became the mark of the austere and rising plutocracy.
Black soon began to appear in noble courts, first in Northern Italy followed by France and Spain, becoming a color expressing power marked with a sense of temperance. As Protestantism emerged, black became an emblem of reform, a counterpoint to the scarlets and violets of the Catholic church.
The growing popularity of black in textiles appears to have never receded; the color retained a seat of permanence within nobility, clergy and the wealthy that remains today. In the 20th century, as the notion of popular fashion emerged, black became the quintessential expression of elegance – intense, distinct, visually rich yet season-less. Today, it remains the faultless staple of a considered wardrobe.
Illust.: Kazimir Malevich, 1915, Black Suprematic Square, oil on linen canvas, 80 x 80 cm